ROCK HILL — Chili beans are Ricky Thompsons favorite.
But Friday, hell serve up plates of baked chicken drumsticks, sweet potato soufflé, macaroni and cheese, green beans, baked beans, rice and dinner rolls to more than 100 volunteers who usually do the same for him.
Ive met a lot of nice people. I like the people, Thompson said. The people we have are nice to us. We returned the favor.
For the past three years, 54-year-old Thompson has spent the coldest months of the year as a resident of the warming center at Bethel United Methodist Church on Curtis Street, just off Dave Lyle Boulevard in Rock Hill.
Every night, volunteers from families, churches and ministries buy, cook and serve food and drinks at the center, which temporarily shelters the countys homeless men when the weather is harshest.
The men at Bethel want to return the favor.
At 6 p.m. Friday, Thompson will lead a crew of three other cooks and several dozen servers to prepare dinner for the volunteers.
Its called the Helping Hands Dinner, an idea Thompson originated to give back to the people he says are nice, caring and appreciated.
He asked, What can I do to give back? said Lora Holladay, community investment director for the United Way of York County.
When Thompson came up with the idea for a dinner, Holladay said shed make it happen.
Invitations have gone out, and as of Wednesday, more than 100 volunteers had confirmed their attendance. Throughout this week, the guest list continued to grow, and Thompson, who said cooking in bulk is best, is prepared.
The United Way operates two temporary warming centers one at Bethel that serves men, about 25 of whom live at the center during the months it is open; and the Hope Street house, which serves women and children.
The center and its volunteers have been a saving grace for Thompson, who left his home and family to make it on his own.
During the day, he works at McDonalds, where he cooks breakfast and dinner. Off duty, he makes salmon patties, country ham, meatloaf and other specialty dinners.
His passion for cooking started when he was a young boy in Chester, watching his mother prepare meals in the kitchen. It continued when he got his first job at The Cyclone restaurant in Chester, working the steam table and making $1.50 an hour, plus tips.
Thompsons kitchen Friday will be run like a tight ship with a keen focus on cleanliness. Hes confident his fellow cooks will know what to do when the time comes, and the other men who want to help will be tasked with serving and helping volunteers in the dining area.
Anyone who doesnt belong in the kitchen wont be in there.
Thompsons motto: Dont go to the courthouse if your names not on the roll.
But, its going to be good.
Liza Holmes is sure of it. Holmes and her husband have volunteered at the Bethel center since it opened five years ago. Now, shes responsible for coordinating what volunteers will serve food on what nights.
The number of people coming to Fridays dinner, she said, is simply a reflection of the men here.
Volunteers are coming here because they love these men, she said. The meal will be a bonus.
Behind the scenes, volunteers wash bed sheets and clothes and help the men establish connections that benefit them in the future, Holmes said. She hopes to see the same happen on Friday.
For Thompson, it has paid off.
Later this month thanks to services he has received from the center and by saving money hell move into his own Rock Hill home and enjoy his newfound privacy.
Next winter, he says, hell come back to the center to volunteer and give again.
You get paid in blessings, he said.
Its worth more money than you can ever make.
Centers need funds
Since theyve opened, the warming centers on Curtis and Hope streets have housed 618 people in 13,000 nights of occupancy, Holladay said.
Despite that success, though, she is concerned that keeping the centers open will become increasingly difficult.
In mid-January, federal grant money for the Curtis Street center ran out. Bethel United Methodist Church stepped in, Holladay said, and paid to keep the center open until its scheduled closing this week.
But a different kind of winter that spawned an ice storm and snow showers convinced Holladay that the center needed to stay open longer this year.
A sizable donation by Rock Hills St. Johns United Methodist Church will allow the center to stay open for two more weeks.
On March 16, the men served by the center will be taken to Project Connect at St. Johns, where theyll find help with housing, dental, medical and hygienic care and, if needed, substance abuse and mental illness counseling.
Despite the churches help, the centers funding is drying up, Holladay said. This year, United Way received a little more than $10,000 from York County. Next year, if trends hold, that number may be cut in half, assistant county manager David Larson said.
Ultimately, the decision rests with the York County Council, whose members started to wean outside agencies from support some years ago, Larson said. County budget discussions begin in May.
Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082